According to the 1989 Primer on The Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association, it is "simply an association of brotherhood. It is non-stock and non-sectarian. As it is primarily carried out through works of charity, it is likewise a humanitarian and charitable organization.......It is aimed to be of service to humanity, to be of help in the attainment of national unity, harmony and progress regardless of whoever is holding the reins of government, and ultimately, to serve as a vehicle in the promotion of international humanitarianism, world brotherhood and friendly relations with all nations, irrespective of creed or religion."
The PBMA, founded in 1964 by Ruben Ecleo Sr., has it's seat in San Jose, Dinagat Island, Surigao Del Norte, Philippines. According to the Philippine National Police, the PBMA has more than 3 million members and 400 chapters nationwide.Usually referred to in the Philippine media as an "anti-communist cult", the PBMA has attained extraordinary notoriety during the past three years due to a scandal enveloping it's leader, Supreme Master Ruben Ecleo Jr., the son of founder Ruben Ecleo Sr. Ruben Jr. is currently standing trial here in Cebu City on the charge of parricide for having allegedly murdered his wife, Alona Bacolod. At the time of her death Alona was a third-year medical student, who lived with Ruben and the couple's three children in Banawa, Cebu City.
|Ruben Ecleo, Jr.
(photo courtesy of Philippine Center for Independent Journalism)
The decomposing body of Alona Bacolod was discovered in a black trash bag in a roadside ravine in Dalaguete, Cebu, on January 5, 2000. Suspicion centered on her husband Ruben Jr., due to alleged reports that Alona had repeatedly chided him over his use of shabu (methamphetamine, the most frequently abused illegal drug in the Philippines.) In May 2000 a warrant was issued for his arrest, but when a police party went to Dinagat Island to serve the arrest warrant, they were met and blocked by an estimated 15,000 PBMA members. The police withdrew. When they returned accompanied by heavily armed soldiers, they were met by armed PBMA supporters. In the ensuing shootout, 16 PBMA members were killed. Finally, on June 18, 2000, the fugitive leader surrendered to police.
Controversy followed Ruben Jr. after his arrest, when three small packets of shabu were discovered in his travel bag upon his arrival at the Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center (city jail) in Cebu City. A blood test at the time of his arrest was positive for shabu. Later, in prohibition of jail policy against conjugal visits for non-married inmates, a female visitor was found inside his jail cell, and another room beside his cell held three other women who crouched to hide from the cameras of reporters. This prompted charges that the inmate was enjoying special privileges at the jail, and resulted in several jail officials being relieved of duty.
In June 2002, during the lead-up to the trial, further tragedy enveloped Alona's family. Her parents, Elpidio and Rosalia, and two siblings, Ben and Evelyn, were shot to death in their home by an lone gunman who was subsequently shot dead by pursuing policemen. The attack, believed by many people to be an act of vendetta by Ecleo against the Bacolod family, has never been solved, although it was verified that the killer was a "fanatically loyal" member of the PBMA. Shooting victim Ben Bacolod had previously charged that he had witnessed Ruben Ecleo Jr., and Ecleo's bodyguard Juriven Padero, load Alona's body into the trunk of Alona's car on the night of Jan. 5, 2000.
During 2003, jail controversy continued with the discovery of a chainsaw inside Ecleo's cell. In response to charges that he had been bribing guards in order to receive special privileges at the crowded jail, Ruben Jr. admitted to reporters that he had been sharing his financial resources with guards as a means of demonstrating the generosity of the PBMA.
Amidst controversy, the trial finally began in May 2003, and continues to trudge along - slowly - today.
In a stunning development last week (December 18, 2003), a man named Cedric Divinadira surrendered to police and confessed to having allegedly assisted Ben Bacolod dump the body of Alona following her death. The new witness claims that Alona's brother strangled his own sister in a fight over money. But Ben's wife, Baby, believes that Divinadira was paid by the PBMA to muddle the trial. In any case, murder victim Ben Bacolod is no longer alive to refute the claim that he murdered his sister.
(Editor's note: I culled most of the above information from old issues of the Cebu SunStar.)
So, I was a little nervous when Ana Flores invited me to accompany her on a visit to see her father in San Jose, the heartland of the PBMA. I've followed the Ecleo trial in the news for two years now. I was intrigued about visiting San Jose, but also a little intimidated. Ana had told me that her father is a healer and PBMA member. I'd also heard stories from different people about how the PBMA is supposedly a cult utilizing mind control, that new PBMA members are reportedly required to dispose of all their possessions, deliver the financial proceeds to the association and then move into the PBMA "compound" in San Jose. I didn't relay all these rumors to Ana, but I did tell her that I was slightly concerned about going there; she reassured me there was "nothing to worry about." OK, what the heck, let's go.
Upon arrival in San Jose I noticed that although it's a typically poor Philippine coastal town, it's also a very clean and quiet place. There's no visible garbage on the streets, none of the usually-ubiquitous videoke joints, and no visible evidence of drinking or smoking (there is a municipal public ordinance prohibiting both in public.) The houses are modest, neat and clean and appear well-maintained.
My first exposure to the PBMA per se was right at Ana's house. Her father is a tambalan (healer.) Two days a week, early in the morning PBMA members start lining up in the "prayer room" downstairs for tambal (healing.) I watched Fernando repeatedly go through a routine of lighting candles, kneeling and praying to small pictures of Christ and Supreme Master Ruben Ecleo Jr., then doing individual hands-on healings with his waiting patients. At my request, he did a tambal with me; my only noticeable sensation was a sharp pricking as he did a series of brief massage-like movements on my temples, shoulders, arms and back. Later, he said I had experienced the "invisible divine instrument of God" that manifests through his treatments.
Noticeable about the healing sessions was the social setting: rather than the somber tone I expected, there was a friendly, informal atmosphere, with Fernando loudly talking and telling jokes while the assembled patients chatted with each other and me. Everybody knows each other here and it appears a convivial, supportive mileu.
One afternoon Alex, a friendly young man who lives with Fernando and his son R.D., took me for a walk uptown to visit the PBMA Shrine (this is the "compound" I had heard about.)
Entrance to the PBMA Shrine.
PBMA Shrine, a large immaculate building. We didn't go inside, I think it's for PBMA members only.
The "Mansion" (Supreme Master Ruben Ecleo Jr.'s house), just above the Shrine. The grandiose house has a commanding view of the surrounding area.
Most everybody I talked to during our week-long visit were PBMA members, and
they were without exception very friendly to me, without being "pushy"
about their beliefs (a favorable comparison to a house call by Jehovah's Witnesses!)
I was invited, in an almost casual way, to join the PBMA. I tried to avoid asking
interrogative questions, but did engage in a few conversations about the association.
- I was told that the association welcomes members of all nationalities and religious beliefs. I asked about religious tolerance; the person I was speaking with told me that a muslim, for example, would have to give up their belief in Allah, and instead adopt a belief in "our God", in order to become a bonafide PBMA member.
- I was told that many aspects of the association are confidential and revealed only to members, and only after they have deeply accepted all the teachings and beliefs of the association.
- The PBMA Primer states that upon Ruben Ecleo Sr's. death in 1987, he re-appeared four days later in the body of his son Ruben Jr., and that this event was witnessed by half a million of his followers and even tape recorded.
- I only asked one PBMA member for her opinion on the ongoing trial of Ruben Jr., in Cebu City. She compared it to the trial and subsequent crucifixion of Jesus, and told me that PBMA members believe that Ruben Ecleo Jr. is a re-incarnation of Jesus Christ.
That's about it for now. For obvious reasons I'll leave it to the reader to form their own conclusions.